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Let’s not pretend brown hydrogen is exporting green energy to the world

31 January 2022

This month, the world’s first vessel capable of transporting liquid hydrogen – designed and built in Kobe, Japan – swung by Victoria to pick up its first, super-cooled cargo for Japanese consumers. The 116-metre Suiso Frontier, as the ship is called, is a symbol of the future, an engineering feat. Suiso means hydrogen in Japanese.

It will pave the way for what the world badly needs: a global trade in green hydrogen and a real, commercial solution to global warming. Kawasaki, which built the vessel, deserves immense praise for its technological achievement.

And hats off also to the Australian government – for indirectly demonstrating, through a $500 million pilot project in Victoria, that international trade in liquid hydrogen is technically feasible.

But let’s not pretend we’re exporting “clean energy” to the world.

Japan’s innovations are without doubt a huge leap forwards for humankind. But peddling hydrogen made from brown coal – the dirtiest of all coals – as “clean” is a cringe-inducing backwards shuffle into the dark ages.

Generation of energy from coal (like methane) is the single biggest cause of global warming.

Forty-six countries, including some of the most coal-intensive economies in the world – South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine – recently committed to ditching coal by the 2030s or 2040s at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.

Let’s not forget that carbon capture and storage is the single greatest technological flop the world has seen since Google Glass.

Brown coal, of all the coals, is the worst. It’s 50-million-year-old decaying swamp matter that, when burned, produces less energy than any other form of coal – but still releases greenhouse gas, sulphur, arsenic and other toxic metals into the air we breathe.

According to the research by scientists at the Australian National University, hydrogen made from brown coal emits 170kg of carbon dioxide-equivalent for every gigajoule of energy produced – versus zero carbon dioxide if you make it from water and renewable electricity.

Emissions from brown coal-derived hydrogen are twice that of natural gas-derived hydrogen. Only green hydrogen is zero carbon.

Make no mistake – hydrogen itself is indeed a zero-emissions fuel. Using it releases nothing but water as a byproduct. But we look like zero-IQ idiots if we make hydrogen out of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet and hawk it as “clean”.

There is no realistic prospect that carbon capture and storage will sufficiently reduce the emissions of brown hydrogen. CCS doesn’t deal with the sulphur, arsenic and other toxic materials, or with the fugitive emissions of methane from coal mining.

Let’s not forget that carbon capture and storage is the single greatest technological flop the world has seen since Google Glass, or that time the Beagle 2 Mars lander didn’t phone home.

The world’s most fêted carbon capture and storage plant, Chevron’s Gorgon, stored just 1 million tonnes a year of carbon dioxide – rather than the projected 4 million tonnes a year that approval to build this massive methane emitter was based on.

Currently, hydrogen production from fossil fuels emits about 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – more than the UK and Indonesia put together. And our own government says that it won’t finish building a CCS plant for its brown-coal-to-hydrogen operations until after 2030.

Australians deserve a choice – a choice between dirty, finite fuels mostly imported from other countries, and 100 per cent clean, renewable fuels made right here, locally. A choice between home-grown industries powered by Australian solar and wind, and reliance on foreign governments.

What can we do about it? Easy: have Australia watch closely what Fortescue is doing. Last year, our Fortescue Future Industries, made its first electrolyser, green-powered truck, train, and ship engine, and this year will make green hydrogen at home, to start powering it all.

Humans have been burning coal for ages; it’s anything but progress. The Aztecs did it, the Romans did it, China may have been doing it as far back as 4000BC. Would you call inventing a wheel progress? It emerged about the same time.

It’s time for Australia to start making its own green energy technological and economic progress.

Dr Andrew Forrest AO is founder and chairman of Fortescue and Fortescue Future Industries.

First published in the Australian Financial Review on 31 January 2022.